The legal fight between photog- rapher William Eggleston and a wealthy patron over new prints of images issued years ago as lim- itededitionshasputacontroversial
practice under scrutiny, and raised several questions. What does “limited edition” mean, exactly?
Is it legal to reprint images in larger sizes or using
a different process after those images have been
issued as a limited edition? And if it is legal to do
that, is it ethical?
The trouble began after Eggleston created
new, limited-edition digital inkjet pigment
prints of some of his most iconic images, and
sold them at a Christie’s auction in March. That
single-owner sale raked in $5.9 million for the
benefit of the Eggleston Artistic Trust, a private
entity controlled by Eggleston and his two sons.
Shortly after the sale, financier Jonathan
Sobel, a long-time collector of Eggleston’s vintage dye-transfer prints, sued the artist. Sobel
claims that the new prints—which Eggleston
made at 44 x 60 inches and issued in editions of
two copies each—effectively diluted the market for Eggleston’s work and thereby devalued
Sobel’s collection of 16 x 20-inch dye-transfer
prints. Sobel also says that by issuing the dye-transfer prints as limited editions in the first
place, Eggleston effectively made a legally binding promise not to issue more prints, but broke
that promise by issuing the digital prints.
Collectors often prefer that photographic
prints they acquire remain scarce so they hold
their value, or even appreciate. Photographers
also want the market value of their work to rise,
so they’re happy to oblige collectors by issuing limited editions. But many photographers
have issued new editions at a later date in larger
sizes or using different print processes or both.
Sometimes it’s for creative reasons, but often it is
to cash in on the rising value of a work for which
the existing limited-edition prints have sold out.
While collectors may grouse about the practice, Sobel is perhaps the first to sue an artist
over it. If he wins, Eggleston could be liable for
damages, and other photographers will be put
on notice. A long-standing practice that’s condoned by some dealers and tolerated by many
collectors could come to an end.
Lawyers who specialize in art photography
and copyright law predict that Sobel has an uphill
fight, however. For one thing, he has to prove that
he was harmed. But even dealers sympathetic to
his complaint question whether the Eggleston
dye-transfer prints that he owns were devalued
by the production of the new inkjet prints.
“I doubt they decreased. In fact, they may
be worth more,” because of the success of the
auction and the attention it drew to Eggleston’s
work, says Philadelphia-based photography
dealer Alex Novak.
Sobel may also have a hard time proving that
“Whether it’s illegal or not, it’s unethical” for
photographers to issue new editions that previous
buyers weren’t warned about, says one dealer. But
others say the ethics aren’t so black and white.